Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Hawksley Workman: Anger as Beauty

As many of you know, I adore Hawksley Workman. (Even if I did once bitch on this blog about a bad cellphone shill he did at one concert, my love of his music did not waver.) I've seen him in concert countless times. I've seen him on stage alone with an acoustic guitar. I've seen entire concerts accompanied by no one but Mr. Lonely, his ever-present pianist. I've seen him on every tour, and through every persona. While promoting his first album, he played the blue-collar worker, saying he'd just gotten off his shift at the pipe-fitting plant and barely made it to the gig (the next night he was a plumber). I saw him on the incredible Delicious Wolves and Lover/Fighter tours, where his persona was as a sexual god who stormed about the stage and made everyone in the room want to leap onto the stage to be with him. At the screamingly loud Phoenix show, he wore torn jeans, and took off clothing throughout the set, and when he was joined onstage by hip-hop artist Graph Nobel so she could perform "Smoke Baby," it was insanely fabulous. The version the band did of "Striptease" that night -- raw, deviant, sexual -- has never been matched in a show I've seen since.

I saw him a few months ago about 30 minutes outside Huntsville in the town of Burk's Falls (pop. 1000) playing a small movie theatre that held about 220 people. I chatted with the town reeve and the deputy clerk of the town, who were running the door and made it probably the most charming show I'd ever been to. They tried to talk me into going to see the Screaming Heads, but we didn't have time. I'll definitely go the next time I'm up there, especially when I checked online to see what they were. I saw him at Massey Hall a couple of years ago and it was like a religious experience -- he had the entire place in the palm of his hand, and he knew it.

As the years have gone by, Hawksley has put together a band of extraordinary talent, and despite the fact he could probably play each one of them into the ground (he plays all the instruments on his albums) you can see the respect and adoration he has for each one of them. On earlier tours, as I said, he'd strike fanciful poses with the mike, standing atop monitors and stomping around the stage. Now he sings, walks over to the bass player to look at him, then walks over to the violinist to watch him, and heads back to the mike. He plays guitar himself, though he defers to the other band members to take the solos. The few times he does handle the solos, he kills them, making me wish he'd tackle more of them. But I think that new persona -- which isn't so much a persona as more of the real man, who admires other musicians and wants to give them the spotlight occasionally -- is taking over. I really wish Hawksley would occasionally put the guitar down like he used to and just sing, though. Even just a couple of songs.

Hawksley played Massey Hall this past Friday, and I was there filled with glee. I knew what to expect -- he's toned down the over-the-topness (which is a little sad, because I loved it), he'll tell stories, he'll perform amazing songs. There was no undressing as the show went on. In fact, he didn't even unbutton his jacket, which must have been rather stifling. I kept thinking that if he'd just remove the dull brown jacket, I could see a crimson shirt underneath with a pinstriped vest and a yellow tie, and he would have struck a pretty cool-looking figure. Similarly, the violinist, Jesse Zubot, who gave one of the most electrifying live performances I'd ever seen, looked like a local at a pub, complete with trucker hat, jeans, and an old shirt. Pop a suit on the guy and you'd have had one fine-looking band. (Hey, I'm not trying to be materialistic here, but when it comes to live shows, there's something to be said for the look.) I forgive him, though... this guy performed a solo where he completely shredded it -- literally. By the end of the solo his bow was almost ripped to shreds, with strings hanging off both ends. Zubot spent the remainder of the song pulling the threads off it. It was jaw-droppingly good. Even Hawksley stared at him at one point like he couldn't believe what the guy was doing. It had to be seen to be believed.

But onto the show. Hawksley has one of the great voices in rock music, and it was a little scratchy at points, which became clearer when he pulled a box of lozenges out and began popping them in his mouth (how crappy to get a Massey Hall show and then get hit with a cold days before it). The show was good, but like I said, it just sort of lacked something for the first bit. The audience didn't seem to be into the songs, which were mostly from his latest CD, Los Manlicious.

A little background: Hawksley recorded two albums: Los Manlicious and Between the Beautifuls. Manlicious is the rockier record, and Beautifuls the singer/songwriter one. Universal, in their infinite non-wisdom, decided North American audiences hate rock music or something, so they released that one in Europe, and Between the Beautifuls here. BtB did OK, and Hawksley pushed them to put out Manlicious. Finally, they acquiesced, and put absolutely no promotional push behind it. The critics raved about it, called it his best album since Delicious Wolves, but no one bought it because, well, they didn't know it existed. (If you are a Hawksley fan, I urge you to get this one... hell, if you don't know who he is, I urge you to get this one. It ROCKS.)

So I think the audience non-reaction had more to do with not knowing the album than anything the band was or wasn't doing.

And then... it happened. During "Striptease," which these days comes off more like Radiohead's performance of "Creep" ("sigh... we hate this song, but we bloody well have to do it because it's the freakin' hit"), the band launched into a bit of a lacklustre performance. And halfway through, during the big orchestral bit in the middle, the speakers completely blew. Like... GONE. Problem was, the monitors and speakers on stage were working perfectly, so the band had no idea that the rest of us had just lost the sound. They kept right on playing, and sounded like a band rehearsing in a garage. And here's the thing: it was GREAT. The loudness was stripped away, and instead you heard a stellar band pulling off a stellar song. They kept going, unaware of what was going on on our end. At one point Hawksley glanced out and you could tell by the look on his face he knew something was up. People weren't staring at the band, they were talking to each other, looking around. The soundboard guys were running frantically down the aisles toward the speakers to try to figure out if something had slipped. The band went up a key and kept going. I loved it. Hawksley stepped up to the mike to sing the final verse, got nothing through his earpiece, and stopped the song for a second, and said, "John, I don't have anything in my ear." Everyone in the audience began shouting at once. He pulled both of the earpieces out and leaned out, cocking his hand behind his ear while everyone continued screaming at him. Finally he said, "Look, I can't hear what you're saying, stop for a second..." everyone stopped. "Can you hear me?" "NO!" He pursed his lips, nodded, turned around and you could just hear the "FUUUUUUUUCCCCKKKK" in his head at that point. If this were many other singers I've seen over the years, he would have tossed the guitar and stormed off until the problem had been fixed.

But that's not Hawksley. Instead he called out to the lead singer of the opening band, Hey Rosetta (who were wonderful; their album is produced by Hawksley and the lead singer of the band has so much charisma I thought he was going to blow the roof of the place off), asking him for his acoustic guitar. The guy ran backstage, grabbed it and handed it off. The sound guys continued running up and down the aisles and checking everything. Hawksley came to the front of the stage, and Zubot joined him. Mr. Lonely stayed behind his piano, the drummer sat back, and the bassist stood by Hawksley's other shoulder, not playing. Hawksley began strumming the minor chords that we all knew so well, and then, bravely (considering he was starting to lose his voice and to shout this song out to Massey Hall was NOT going to be easy) he sang:

Gather at the church
Say a quiet prayer
Hold each other's hands
Praying that we might be there.

And with that, we suddenly were at church. You could have heard a pin drop. Zubot began playing quietly on his violin beside Hawksley, Mr. Lonely played some quiet arpeggios behind him, and the bassist (it's killing me that I can't remember this guy's name, because he's always incredible when we see him) sang harmonies behind him. Hawksley performed "Anger As Beauty" slowly, quietly... and it was amazing. As the chaos continued below him, he glanced upwards and carried us all out of it, like nothing was wrong, like he had planned the PA explosion all along, as if this was the way this song was meant to be played. Halfway through the song Lonely's piano suddenly rang through the speakers, and everything was back to normal. Hawksley smirked, they resumed their places, and he continued to sing it quietly until the song hit a natural break point, he switched to an electric guitar, and then the band slammed into the end of the song, playing it fast, loud, and amazingly. It was one of the best moments of any Hawksley show I'd ever seen.

From that point on he had the audience right where he wanted us. We hung on every word, we were carried along by the solos, we cheered and sang along. It was a beautiful thing.

And for that, this show officially ranks right up there with the Hawksley shows. I can't stress it enough: if you have not seen this man live, you are missing out. He is a consummate performer. He carried Massey Hall with no speakers or mikes (yeah, I know, hundreds of performers have done the whole, 'let's walk to the edge of the stage at Massey Hall and do an acoustic thing' including Hawksley himself at his last show, but their voices were being picked up by the mikes. He did it as if he were in our living room, and he had to make that voice carry to the upper upper balconies... and he did). He is extraordinary.


Joshua said...

Time to pull out "Almost a Full Moon" and go caroling...

Anonymous said...

I just came across your blog, because I was looking up this moment on youtube -- I've watched it a bunch of times since the show.

I completely agree with you. There was something so hallowed about that moment... I don't even know how to describe it.

Thanks for your post about this show. You really captured the moment well!

- Laura